BY RICK BROWN
Roberto Diaz was in the final pairing of the John Deere Classic, teeing off at 2 p.m. Thursday.
Last finished first.
Diaz shot a 9-under-par 62 for a two-shot lead after the first round at TPC Deere Run. Diaz birdied four of the first five holes and takes a two-shot lead over Russell Henley and Adam Long into Friday’s second round.
“This is what we practice for,” said Diaz, 32, who has two career Top 10 finishes in 49 career PGA Tour starts. “It’s awesome to get it going. Once you get it going, you feel like you have to put the pedal to the medal and keep going, because this tour is the best players in the world.”
The 62 was three shots lower than Diaz’s previous career low round, a 65 in the second round of this year’s Travelers Championship.
“Tomorrow it might be someone else shooting a 62 of 61,” Diaz said. “I don’t think there’s room for holding back. You have to be focused the whole round.”
Diaz spent recent weeks trying to dial in his wedge game, and the work paid off Thursday. He holed a wedge from 99 yards on the par-3 10th hole for an eagle.
The pin was in the back left section of the 10th green, but Diaz didn’t take a conservative approach.
“If it’s inside 100 yards, I’m trying to make it,” Diaz said.
Long knows he makes his living in an unpredictable sport. Golf brings the thrill of victory one day, but the agony of defeat is always waiting just around the corner.
“It’s the most humbling game in the world,” Long said after his 64.
Henley has ridden that rollercoaster this season, too. A three-time winner on the PGA Tour, Henley has missed the cut in his previous four tournaments and made it to the weekend in just nine of 21 starts this season.
But Henley was in good step Thursday, matching Long’s 64.
“I’m thankful for a good round,” Henley said. “This has been a weird year for me. I just haven’t been myself playing golf. I’ve put in a lot of work. I felt confident going into (Thursday).”
Henley’s biggest issue, he said, has been himself.
“Just confidence in my game,” Henley said. “I’ve not been feeling comfortable lately. I’m continuing to work hard. It’s starting to come back a little bit. But it’s a really hard game.”
Long turned professional after graduating from Duke in 2010. He tried to find some traction playing on the eGolf Tour, the Hooters Tour, the PGA Tour Canada and Web.com Tour.
Long’s persistence paid off when he finished 13th on the 2018 Web.com Tour regular-season money list, earning him playing privileges on the PGA Tour in 2019.
After a tie for 63rd at the season-opening Safeway Open and three missed cuts, Long outdueled Phil Mickelson and Adam Hadwin during the final round to win the Desert Classic at PGA West. “It keeps you honest,” Long said. “It’s just how hard the game is, that you can’t keep it for that long. You wish you could. But it’s the toughest game.”
The game smiled on Long Thursday in his first official round at TPC Deere Run. He had seven birdies and just one bogey on his 31-33 scorecard.
“It was nice to see some putts falling early and make some birdies and get off to a good start,” Long said.
Six players - Martin Laird, Andrew Landry, Vaughn Taylor, Ryan Palmer, Zack Sucher and Ryan Blaum, are deadlocked in a tie for fourth at 65.
Matthew Wolff, teeing it up for the first time as a PGA Tour winner, got off to a solid start with a bogey-free 67.
“Coming off a win, I have a lot of confidence and momentum,” said the 20-year-old Wolff, who won the 3M Open last week in the Twin Cities. “Everything feels really good in my game. Carrying that over to this week is really important. It feels good to back up a win with a nice round.”
Wolff started his round on the back nine and ran off nine straight pars. That included 30-foot par-saving putt on the 18th.
Wolff pulled his drive slightly on the par-4 first hole, but ended up just short of the green. He got up-and down for the first of three consecutive birdies, then added one more on No. 8.
It was not a memorable Thursday for 2012 John Deere champion Zach Johnson, who bogeyed the 18th hole for a 1-over 72 that snapped a remarkable streak. Johnson entered the day with a string of 41 consecutive rounds of par or better in this event. Thursday was his first over-par round since a third-round 75 in 2008.
“Frustrating,” Johnson said. “The good shots I did hit, I didn’t get anything out of them. And when I hit a bad shot, I was scrambling.”